Migrant crisis: Striving for normality in overcrowded camps

Refugees continue to mass on Syrian side of Turkish border in wake of Aleppo offensive

Syrian refugees wait before the Oncupinar crossing gate near the town of Kilis, in south-central Turkey. Photograph: Getty Images

Syrian refugees wait before the Oncupinar crossing gate near the town of Kilis, in south-central Turkey. Photograph: Getty Images

 

As the sun inches towards the centre of the sky and noon approaches, the sound of the call to prayer ripples through the air. Here, on the Turkish-Syrian border, life goes on for some of the 14,000 Syrian refugees who now call Kilis refugee camp home.

Many have been in Turkey for three or four years. They were among the first wave of migrants to flee when the civil war erupted in their country in 2011.

The camp, which snakes around the Turkish border with Syria, lies just beside the Oncupinar border crossing where thousands of Syrian refugees are amassed on the other side.

Behind the steel walls and barbed wire which fence off the camp, a playground, two mosques and makeshift classrooms provide a semblance of normality for its population of displaced people.

Outside the grounds, where residents move about freely, women and children stand around in groups talking,

On quiet days you can hear the sound of bombs falling on the town of Azaz, just 15km south of the border.

Esme, a woman from the Syrian city of Aleppo who has lived in two different refugee camps since arriving in Turkey three years ago, lives in the Kisil camp with her four children. She has had no word from her husband in 18 months. “He is lost,” she says simply.

Her friend Mutia from the district of Azaz explains that her son died fighting with the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. “It is the same for everyone,” she says resignedly. “They say that all the families in Syria have at least two martyrs.”

Their personal stories of loss are borne out by statistics. A new report by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR) estimates that 11.5 per cent of Syria’s population have been killed or injured since the conflict erupted in March 2011. About 45 per cent of the population has been displaced – 6.36 million people internally and more than 4 million abroad, including 2.5 million who have fled to Turkey.

Rebel forces

The offensive looks set to have the biggest impact on the direction of the Syrian conflict since Russia intervened on the side of President Bashar al-Assad last September.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that about 50,000 people have been displaced due to the recent upsurge in fighting. It is warning of catastrophic humanitarian impacts.

“The fighting is putting enormous pressure on civilians,” says the ICRC’s Marianne Gasser in Syria. “The temperatures are extremely low and, without an adequate supply of food, water and shelter, displaced people are trying to survive in very precarious conditions.”

Inside Aleppo, the water system has been cut, leaving citizens to depend on more than 100 water points set up by the ICRC, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and local water boards.

Aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières says there is growing concern about the state of Syria’s health infrastructure in the northern part of the country.

“Ten days ago, the district of Azaz had nine hospitals. Now five have closed,” says MSF’s Sam Taylor.

Medical supplies

Amid reports of more than 30,000 people amassed a few kilometres away on the other side of the border , the atmosphere is subdued but tense. The last few days have seen an increase in police presence. Around Kilis, journalists are being stopped by plain-clothes police and asked for documentation.

Much of the enhanced surveillance is down to renewed security concerns. Turkish authorities on Wednesday said they had arrested more than two dozen suspects alleged to have been carrying firearms just north of the Syrian border. A month after a suicide bomber killed 10 people in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square, tensions are still high in the country.

But for the thousands of Syrian refugees whiling away the hours in this corner of southern Turkey, the atmosphere is bleak. The feeling of empty hours sliding into weeks and years pervades as desperate people contemplate a future with nowhere to go.